Transmedia LA: Henry Jenkins

Tonight it was time for another ad-hoc Transmedia LA Meetup. This time the guest was Prof. Henry Jenkins, one of the earliest thought-leaders on transmedia and convergence culture.

I am basing the following paragraphs solely on the notes I took during Henry’s talk, so they are no word-for-word transcription. As a matter of fact, I will be paraphrasing most of the time. If you see phrases or sentences in quotation marks, they denote a word-for-word citation, but everything else is just summing up Henry’s words. 

 

Spreadability

Spreadability requires the distinction between circulation and distribution. Distribution is a top-down method of bringing content to audiences; it is measured by ticket sales, numbers of eyes watching, etc. The goal of distribution is therefore a consistent rollout of content. Distribution is breaking down at the moment, making place for circulation. Circulation is partially bottom-up; consumers add their own input, thereby spreading media content, and often this happens outside producers’ control. And while many producers are still afraid of losing control, the reality is that they lost control a long time ago.

What producers must do now is to continue playing the game. They need to monitor it, understand it, and then play it with their consumers. This includes responding swiftly to audience behavior, and to audiences’ reaction to entertainment content.

Spreadable media relates to the concept of transmedia in that “spreadable is baked into transmedia.” Spreadable makes use of the ‘nooks and crannies’ of transmedia narratives and motivates consumers to spread entertainment content further, particularly through social media.

The great advantage of spreadability is for content producers that it avoids gatekeepers, such as studios and television networks. Particularly indie creators can use spreadability and new media as testing grounds for new content, as they have nothing to lose but much to gain, and ultimately, their successes and failures will have a significant impact on mainstream media production, distribution, and circulation. On a final note concerning spreadability, Henry added that the cause of death for content is never piracy, but obscurity; nowadays, media content must be like a dandelion and ready to be dispersed across the world. Just like dandelion seeds, some content will end up in an unwelcoming environment, but at other times, it can fall on very fruchtbaren soil and continue to grow and reproduce there.

 

Distinctive Features of Transmedia

Henry then went on to say a few words on the distinctive features of transmedia, highlighting that transmedia stories purposely omit explanations for every situation and every character, leaving an imperfect yet highly realistic world. He referred to such omissions as negative capabilities;” they are ultimately responsible for creating rich and complex storyworlds. However, while adding new content to an existing storyworld is of course the goal of transmedia storytelling, it must be done carefully so as not to endanger the overall integrity of the world created. Rather than “suspending disbelief,” Henry argues, disbelief must be actively constructed between the audience and the producers, particularly in deep transmedia worlds. This includes accepting a content world the way it is, without rationalizing or explaining its existence (which creates skepticism and undermines the construction of disbelief). For example, Henry doubts that AMC’s set of The Walking Dead webisodes (which will show how the zombies came about and eradicated most humans) are helpful in the construction of disbelief, pointing to the series’ original author Robert Kirkman who believes that explaining zombies makes them ridiculous, and who therefore never endangered the integrity of his world by showing their origins himself.

 

Henry then opened the floor for questions.

 

Q: What is transmedia? For example, is Harry Potter transmedia?

HJ: Literally, transmedia means connecting across media. Transmedia can take many shapes: Storytelling, ritual, branding, spectacle, education, activism, play, etc. Nowadays, everything we do takes place across different media. [See Henry’s most recent blog post defining transmedia here]

At the same time, however, transmedia is not just adaptation, e.g. novel to screen or vice versa. In transmedia, each platform must add something new to the overall storyworld, so that each platform adds to the audience’s knowledge and comprehension of that world. Transmdia is radically intertextual (linking between two different texts) and at the same time possesses multimodality, i.e. the possibility to engage with the content via several different channels.

Harry Potter used to be multimedia, not transmedia, as it was originally composed only of the novels and their film adaptations. However, with the development of Pottermore, Harry Potter has become transmedia by offering an additional platform that will add to the audience’s understanding of the overall narrative. Henry himself sees Pottermore as one of the most important transmedia projects of the year.

Other key characteristics of transmedia are a) expanding the timeline, b) expanding the storyworld itself, and c) swapping subjectivity. In one way or another, transmedia projects usually do at least two of these three things.

 

Q: Where does ‘official’ production end and where does participation begin?

HJ: For one, not all participation must be fan controlled, it can also be initiated by producers. What is important, however, is that participation is always a collaboration between producers and fans, and that it doesn’t alienate any fans or hurt the storyworld in question. Participation must me inclusive, so you must understand the fans you have, and care about what they care about. For example, Battlestar Galactica and Lucasfilm both invited fan participation by video contests, but they would only allow plots involving certain genres and types of action (usually a lot of combat). This alienated many female fans, who followed Battlestar and Star Wars for other content, such as relationships, and who could not express themselves within the confines of the participation controlled by the producers.

Similarly, JK Rowlings announcement of a “safe” environment in Pottermore is likely to mean that no erotica is allowed whatsoever (no fan fiction at all, as a matter of fact, as one of the audience members could report), which polices fandom in a very uncomfortable way for many fans who build their fan identities around aspects of the fandom that is now being negated by Rowling.

 

Q: Do you have a persuasive argument for clients who are unconvinced of the monetary value of transmedia?

HJ: Transmedia grew out of promotional functionality, and it continues to be associated with marketing at this point in time. However, Brian Clark offered some great ways in which transmedia can be monetized when he spoke at my last lecture, and Scott Walker has summarized all the points Brian made in his blog, where I’d like to direct you for further details. Some possible ways are of course micro-payments, i.e. one-dollar payments or so that are made on an individual basis, like in iTunes. Ad-revenue continues to be an important source of revenue as well, particularly through sponsorships. And then there are cases like Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, where the first episodes were first available for free online, then on a micropayment basis on iTunes, and finally on DVD, creating large revenues for its producers.

 

Q: What do you think of original content funded by brands/sponsors and executed by artists?

HJ: This is the “East Coast School” [ironic] of transmedia. Unlike the “West Coast School”, the East Coast focuses less on building franchises but more on creating systems of media text. So really it is one story on different media stitched together. Is this transmedia? I personally don’t want to weigh in on this debate. It is a question of how one defines transmedia and its purpose: Is it mostly the hunting and gathering of content, or is it a puzzle/game-play?

 

Q: What can transmedia be boiled down to then?

HJ: We don’t know that yet. At the moment, we are conducting many different experiments, using different methods. Right now we just have to sit back and watch what happens. “We are in process, we are going to be in process for a long time to come, get over your desire to have gurus that tell you exactly what it [transmedia] is.” First of all, we need to figure out what works and what doesn’t. Transmedia is complex, and it is not a destination but a process.

 

Q: What are the non-fiction implications and applications of transmedia?

HJ: The world lives across different media. So we need to figure out how to capture a part of this world and communicate it on the right platform, while again constructing a (non-fiction) story additively across different platforms. For example, Obama’s story is told through different media on a continuing basis anyway, and if we were to tell parts of that story, we could use social media, television, etc. Particularly documentaries lend themselves to transmedia very well, as it is very easy to put additional content that did not make the final cut online to add to the actual documentary itself.

 

Q: Can you give us any well-working indie transmedia examples?

HJ: Lance Weiler’s work is a great example. Lance only does “low-end stuff” that is about using the appropriate technologies for the purpose of the project. This includes pretty much anything that could be defined as media: graffiti, pirate radio, songs, hand printed comics, etc. Transmedia doesn’t have to be complex and high-value, the skill is the most important aspect, together with the creation of a logical and compelling world. It is particularly easy to combine transmedia and skill in networks and communities.

 

Q: What do you think about (television) networks resisting the spread of their media, e.g. pulling their episodes from the web?

HJ: I hope that they will see their errors soon. The argument of “stealing television” is just not valid; it is always free on TV after all. There are many relationship issues between television networks and their consumers, and there is a whole white paper for Futures of Entertainment on this issue. Pulling episodes is merely counter-productive. Some shows, such as Heroes for example, have more illegal viewers than legal ones. Loyal fans will find your episodes one way or another, but producers mustn’t make fans play catch-up all the time, this will only anger them and strain the consumer-network relationship even further. So there needs to be a change in the policy of access; missing a show must not mean resorting to illegal measures. And after all, the possibilities for ad revenue remain. Particularly in the case of product placements, viewers are exposed to the product regardless of whether they watch an episode legally or illegally. However, the potential revenue behind this is not monetized if viewers are forced into illegal episode viewing. Why would you punish watching television online, implying that is ok to watch the same content one way but wrong to watch it another way?

 

Q: Is there anything you can say about the international availability of television content? For example, many fans abroad refuse to wait until a show is finally syndicated to their country but search it out online just after a new episode’s release in the US – legally and illegally.

HJ: International viewing and international fans still count, and television shows must be made available to them as well. It is not a moral failure of consumers when they seek out illegally shared content online, but it is a failure by the producing corporations to accommodate the demand for their products. Very often the pressure to keep a show alive comes from the global market, not from the US. There is an audience out there, even if domestic viewing is low.

Dr. Horrible foretells that in the long term, transmedia producers will take distribution into their own hands and distribute directly to their consumers. For example, Locke & Key, an television adaptation of the comic books, would not be picked up by a major network, so its producers screened the pilot at San Diego’s Comic Con in 2011, where it was a major hit.

In the future, we will subscribe to a television show like to a magazine and the producer will control the production revenue from the beginning. However, someone must take the first step.